|Border States: Journal of the Kentucky-Tennessee American Studies Association, No. 12 (1999)|
All too often, a collection of an author's papers kept by a library's
Special Collections Department is merely that: a collection of
papers. Ephemeral scraps, false starts and banal letters (often
asking publishers, family and acquaintances for money) abound.
Therefore, the University of Kentucky's Special Collections Department
is lucky to have a collection as well-rounded and significant
as the Harriette Simpson Arnow collection. While it would be important
to preserve virtually any written memento by the author of The
Dollmaker, still one of the most well-received and enduring
novels to come out of Kentucky, the collection is especially notable
for its depth. Over seventy feet of shelf space is given to complete
manuscripts and typescripts of Arnow's published work, letters
to and from literati like Robert Penn Warren and Alfred Knopf
and letters to inquiring readers, all crucial to our understanding
of this often overlooked author. But what is truly exciting about
this collection is what has up to now been disregarded; three
very different unpublished novels, over a dozen unpublished short
stories and a wealth of autobiographical material spanning the
length of Arnow's career, from the mid-1930s to the early 1980s.
Just the volume of work alone makes this collection unique; indeed,
the number of unpublished works in advanced stages of completion
rivals the number of published Arnow works. We can only speculate
on the reasons why so many quality works went unpublished. One
reason may be simple geography: living in Burnside, Kentucky,
then Cincinnati and finally Ann Arbor, Michigan, placed her "out
of the loop" of the New York-centered publishing establishment.
A more intriguing reason, though, is the author's own dogged determination
and fierce pride in her work. We can look at the years of Arnow's
artistic maturity, from the publication of "The Washerwoman's
Day" in the Southern Review in 1935 to her death in
1986, and not find one instance of work that caves in to the whims
of the marketplace. Whether or not Appalachia was in the forefront
of public consciousness at the time, Arnow spent over fifty years
writing with commitment and conviction about her home region;
long before the phrase became a critic's cliche, works like Mountain
Path (1936) demonstrated true "sense of place" by
balancing social critique with humane and multifaceted portrayals
of rural Kentuckians. Her commitment and iconoclasm shine through
in the two unpublished works that bookend her career: an apprentice
short story called "The Goat Who Was a Cow" and a novel,
titled Belle, left uncompleted at her death. Though written
almost half a century apart, these two seemingly disparate works
share the same vision. The early short story observes Appalachia
with a perspective and skill extraordinary for such a young writer.
Belle not only keeps the focus of the earlier work (as
well as her best-known novels) but filters her version of "place"
through the conventions of several different genres. Collectively,
the two works demonstrate that Arnow balanced high artistic ideals
with sympathetic portrayals of rural people throughout her career.
Though it has never received publication or critical attention, the somewhat awkwardly titled "The Goat Who Was a Cow," dating from a time in the early 1930s when Arnow taught in rural Kentucky, displays an assurance and self-awareness of the region that some of the more visible, polemical Southern fiction of the time missed. In the story, a southern Kentucky girl named Jezebel laconically tells her teacher a story in which she and her brother David knowingly lead a Northerner on a wild goose chase in search of moonshine. As if to punish the brusque interloper, Jezebel and David (who share a symbiotic relationship not unlike the one Harper Lee constructed for Jem and Scout twenty-five years later in To Kill a Mockingbird) ramble through hills, brush and marshes, with the Northerner barely in tow. The children's undisguised glee at making a mockery of the intruder's patronization is compounded by the man's petulant protests as the trip goes on. Expecting the world of Ma and Pa Kettle and coonskin caps, the Northerner (never identified by name and wryly nicknamed "the thirsty man") has instead found himself in a heart of darkness, with two very mischievous children leading the way. After finally leading the man to an old moonshiner, Jezebel must go so far as to negotiate the deal for the Northerner, making her a true bootlegger. After making his purchase and hurriedly paying the children, "the thirsty man" vanishes, scared but smarter. On their way home, the children intercept one of their family's wayward cows. Though her overnight trip is now justified (and well-reimbursed), Jezebel feels pangs of conscience as she returns home and again as she relates her wild tale to her teacher.
What Arnow does so effectively in this brief story is much like
what she does in her later, published work: create a nuanced portrait
of both a time and a place. Though set in Prohibition, "The
Goat Who Was a Cow" never descends to an exaggerated moonshiner
tale or a "local color" story told from a distance for
the amusement of outsiders. The story's conflict refers to something
more timeless: the tenuous relationship and mutual misunderstandings
between neighboring but unequal societies. The Jezebel character
has a narrative voice far more complicated than the standard "yarn
spinner" or dialect voice. Jezebel tunes in to the Northerner's
pretentiousness just as she detects the do-gooder attitude of
her narratee, the schoolteacher, and twists her story to both
fit and conflict with the teacher's anachronistic view of the
"hill people." Tongue-in-cheek, she "thanks"
her teacher for not seeing her and her region as "half civilized."
Her wild tale, then, becomes a wry tale that "signifies"
on the teacher's unspoken prejudices. Having lived and taught
both in and out of the region, Arnow was especially capable of
seeing both sides of the conflict and creating this type of convincing
dialogue and characterization. In Jezebel, Arnow creates one of
her more intriguing characters, one who illustrates both the narrowness
and breadth of the culture gap. Jezebel is acquainted enough with
the land to lead the Northerner through the brush expertly, canny
enough to exaggerate her dialect in order to give both the Northern
interloper and the schoolteacher a true "down-home"
experience to take back with them, and articulate enough to tell
the story to the captivated teacher. Given this character's depth
and sophistication (especially notable when created by a still-developing
author), one cannot help but wonder if Arnow's fictional analogue
is less the patient schoolteacher and more the observant, savvy
mountain girl who tells fascinating, deceptively simple stories.
While one might easily understand the existence of an unpublished
early short story among Arnow's papers, the presence of Belle,
a fully developed manuscript novel, requires some explanation.
Almost five decades separated "The Goat Who Was a Cow"
and Belle, years which brought much success for Arnow and
established her painstaking method of work. Arnow published The
Dollmaker in 1955 to critical and popular acclaim. She had
spent nearly five years in constant, arduous rewriting of that
manuscript, and even threatened to withhold the book when faced
with undue editorial influence from Macmillan. Partly in reaction
to this, Arnow published two dense volumes of social history,
Seedtime on the Cumberland (1960) and Flowering of the
Cumberland (1963), both the result of exhaustive research.
After a hiatus, Arnow returned to fiction in 1970 with The
Weedkiller's Daughter, followed by another work of history,
Old Burnside (1976). Old Burnside was an uneasy
compromise between Arnow and the University Press of Kentucky,
in which Arnow rather reluctantly introduced autobiographical
material alongside a general history of the town. The advantage
of the Old Burnside project is that the short book refocused
her energies from the encyclopedic detail of the Cumberland
books to a more direct inquiry on the past, centered on the universal
themes that drove her fiction and fleshed out with accurate portrayals.
This meticulous attention to detail and her solitary method of working, which had characterized all Arnow's major works since The Dollmaker, partly explain why Belle remained unfinished at Arnow's death in 1986, despite the fact she had been working on it for at least eight years. Considering, though, that these years coincided with the death of her husband, Harold, in 1985, two major illnesses and an unprecedented crush of publicity and interviews that surrounded the TV-movie adaptation of The Dollmaker in 1984, we are lucky to have the 876-page manuscript in any form. What emerges in these pages is a novel entering its final stages of development. There are minor points of confusion, however: some characters' names had not been settled on yet, key scenes had not been definitively put in order, an ending was not finalized, etc.1 Despite these confusions, the novel offers much for consideration. Intriguingly, the work was left at the stage where characters start to interact rather than merely orbit one another, speak naturally rather than ornately and where scenes start to flow together. From all appearances, Belle appears to be a work designed as a culmination of a career, rather than an exercise or experiment. If this speculation is true, it is interesting to note the subject matter of Belle, since on the surface it is that staple of Southern fiction: the Civil War novel. Though her previous novel, The Kentucky Trace (1974) was set in the era of the American Revolution, Belle has no link to that previous work of historical fiction. Therefore, Belle becomes especially notable; with the exception of her unpublished pseudo-science-fiction novella To You No Place (circa 1960), this is the only instance of Arnow choosing to write in an established genre or subgenre.
The novel itself is focalized through the character Belle Goodwood, who holds together her Kentucky home while her husband and son are off fighting for the Confederacy and her oldest daughter is away at school. Reading the manuscript, one cannot help but note the similarity between Belle and Gertie Nevels, the strong-willed, resilient heroine who anchors The Dollmaker. The theme of self-reliance in the face of adversity-natural, social and interpersonal-is everpresent in both works. The quietly independent Belle becomes a rock for her family and neighbors amid a series of crisis. Her strength is tested further by existing institutions, such as church and school, which hinder rather than help outsiders. Perhaps recalling Gertie's rejection of fire-and-brimstone fundamentalism in The Dollmaker, Arnow set the opening scene of Belle in a country church. There, Belle swallows her anger as the preacher curses the town's "harlots" and Eve's role in original sin while the men sit impassively on the opposite aisle of the congregation. As angered by the hellfire-and-brimstone sermon as the preacher's personal hypocrisy, Belle takes up and creates her own Sunday morning service at home to turn her children's attention back to Christian compassion. Likewise, when the war intensifies, she runs her own one-room schoolhouse, teaching alike her children, "white trash" and the children of her house slaves.2 By novel's end, Belle has withdrawn almost fully into her own home, the one place where she is free of outside interference.
As these incidents suggest, Belle, whether by design or not, comes
across less as an Everywoman, and more as an emblematic figure.
There is no evidence in the notes or correspondence relating to
Belle that the character was based on a real person; instead,
the character seems to be a composite of figures gleaned from
her years of researching women and families of the Cumberland
region. Such concerns are minimal, though, in the novel's overall
scheme. Using the limited omniscient voice, as she had in The
Dollmaker, to get inside the main character's mind, Arnow
quickly gets the reader to assume all that Belle assumes. Hence,
Belle's seemingly unlimited resourcefulness - spent raising five
children and running the makeshift church, a school, and a homestead
of thousands of acres - rarely becomes an issue within the novel.
Like many other Arnow heroines, Belle seems innately and unshakably
Certainly Arnow was aware that a completely flawless character
would be static, and it is interesting to note the imperfections
Arnow was beginning to introduce into the character in these final
drafts. A few chapters have Belle habitually drinking strong toddies
at the end of the day, while each progressive draft significantly
changes a subplot involving Belle and the married man whom she
loves from afar, Jean Paul Gaudais. Perhaps Arnow was reacting
to the criticism she had faced in her previous novel, The Kentucky
Trace, which featured a protagonist, Leslie Collins, who fit
the straitlaced, taciturn frontiersman role in the grand tradition
of Daniel Boone and the work of James Fenimore Cooper. Arnow's
championing of a seemingly flawless frontiersmen in the age of
the antihero irritated many book reviewers, who overlooked the
book's historical accuracy to attack the character's one-dimensionality.
Arnow's task in this subsequent attempt at historical fiction,
then, was a complex one. First, she had to recreate the Civil
War era for a modern audience without specifically invoking the
war's battles or key figures, in essence forgoing the fictional
equivalent of her Cumberland social histories. Then she
had to shed light on the relatively undocumented domestic facet
of the war.3 Finally, she had to recast characters
for an audience increasingly receptive to - even expectant of
- complex and strong women protagonists while heeding the established
historical record. At the state it was left in, Belle seemed
to promise all of these things. And while the book can get top-heavy
with historical detail, it rarely stops to make didactic points.
At its most lugubrious, Belle wears its accuracy on its
sleeve, with its extensive descriptions of gun stocks and smokehouses
loosely integrated with the story proper and signalling lulls
in the plot. Arnow, then, was faced with the enviable problem
of having to subordinate her proven skills as a historian to her
fiction-writing prowess. The various drafts of the novel reflect
Arnow's increasing weariness with minutiae and, as a result, the
more historically bound passages of the book are pared down in
the last working draft.
While a reader familiar with Arnow's published work would more
than likely feel comfortable with the familiar Arnow themes of
individualism and empowerment in Belle, the depiction of
slavery in the manuscripts is much more ambiguous. Arnow probably
shared in this ambiguity. Signalling, perhaps, the difficulty
in getting a handle on a character, Arnow gave the house-cook
character the rather cliched name "Beulah" in the first
typescript draft (this draft exists only in fragments in the UK
collection), changing it in the final draft to "Victoria."4
Though it is obvious that the relationship between Belle, Victoria,
and Victoria's family is a master-slave relationship and that
Victoria's children maintain Belle's ornate, half-empty house
and grounds, both the characters and the omniscient narrator consistently
refer to Victoria and her family as "help," not slaves.
Why this insistence on euphemism? Within the work, the euphemism
makes some sense. If the reader is to sympathize with Belle's
plight (and a plight it is, since she deals with abandonment,
dismemberment of a son in battle, supply shortages, and invasions
from Northern soldiers), the reader must put aside the objection
to the ownership of slaves and see it as a "curious institution"
or "necessary evil." Running the house in tandem against
seemingly impossible odds, Belle and Victoria must draw upon the
same resources and each other, making Belle's relationship with
Victoria more symbiotic than parasitic. But if Victoria is to
be a double for Belle (as seems to be the case, given their inseparability
throughout much of the work), the characterization of Victoria
leaves much to be desired. Despite her more politically correct
job description, Victoria's character is almost never focalized
and never seen in a capacity outside her role to Belle. Unlike
Belle, we never see Victoria fulfill her role as mother, outside
of marshalling her children to perform tasks for Belle with machine-like
efficiency. When Victoria's domestic duties are done, she promptly
vanishes from the scene. This, coupled with her showy, finger-wagging
fussiness towards outsiders, brings the depiction uncomfortably
close at times to Margaret Mitchell's Mammy. Considering the round,
dignified portrayals of women Arnow created throughout her career,
Victoria's stasis is especially puzzling and a rare instance of
Arnow employing a stock character.
Such shortcomings are the pitfalls of historical fiction, especially
Civil War fiction written from the Southern point of view. Not
only are we well aware of how the actual war turned out, we know
how the war turned out in subsequent fiction. Scarlett, Rhett
and the shadow of Tara loom large in our preconceptions, with
Faulkner's misfit Southerners from The Unvanquished and
Flags in the Dust nearby. So many shortcomings of Belle
come about not because of any lapse of authorial skill, but the
reader's own predisposition and conditioning, leaving perfectly
"round" characters and otherwise believable situations
predictable. Not all resemblances between Belle and Gone
With the Wind are negative, however. Chapter X of Belle
includes a delightful scene where Belle entertains her neighbors
in a spirited "Christmas sing" that recalls the ebullient
party on the eve of the war in Gone With the Wind. Other
similarities hurt the work, though, largely through a capitulation
to melodrama. For example, we recognize right off that Belle has
sent three men off to war - her gruff husband Barstow (who married
Belle through an arrangement with Belle's father), her overeager
son William and the man she really loves, a dashing colonel named
Jean Paul Gaudais. Jean Paul plays the sensitive Ashley Wilkes
role to the hilt, offering the supportive advice and sympathy
that Barstow seems wholly incapable of, so it is quite foreseeable
from the earliest stages of the work that Jean Paul will die in
battle, his own love for Belle unrequited and undeclared, save
for a letter Belle receives after his demise. Likewise, early
scenes of the brash, gung-ho William are a studied contrast to
his scenes upon return, where he returns bitter and maimed, another
burden for Belle to bear. Finally, scenes where Belle protects
her homeplace and heritage from a succession of intruders - Yankee
deserters, scalawags and rapacious white trash alike - strike
familiar chords among Gone With the Wind readers.
Yet, judging from the typescripts of Belle, these similarities
to Mitchell's work were not lost on Arnow as she was writing:
each of these aforementioned scenes underwent several major revisions,
all of which marked significant changes in tone. (Most significant
among these changes was the eventual omission of a scene that
hinted at an extramarital affair between Belle and Jean Paul.)
These heavily edited and re-edited scenes, none of which apparently
satisfied Arnow enough to be considered finished, illustrate the
diligence and order she put into this work and, above all, the
elusive stamp of originality she was aiming for.
Taken as a whole, the work cannot be relegated, along with decades'
worth of mindless bodice-rippers, as a cheap imitation of sentimental
Civil War fiction. Instead, it stands more as a character-driven
piece. Though Belle fully supports the Confederate cause, the
book is far from an apology for the Old South. If we look for
a sense of place in Belle, we find it in the depictions
of the family home, not in fanciful descriptions of rolling fields
and lush magnolias. In this way, then, Arnow succeeds in creating
an image of domestic pastoral, a welcome sanctuary from war and
division. Belle and Victoria quietly personify in their home the
values - respect, honor and self-determination - that the war
is supposedly fought over. As Sandra L. Ballard rightly pointed
out in the only published study of Belle to date, Belle
can neither be pigeonholed as a spoiled child of the South nor
as Confederacy incarnate. In fact, the book's best stand-alone
scene comes when Belle gives aid and comfort to some Union guerillas.5
With a minimum of narrative sermonizing, Belle practices what
she preaches in her home church and subordinates her allegiance
to the Confederate cause to the Christian duty toward "strangers
in our midst." Her other duty in this scene is that of surrogate
mother to the soldiers, seeing much of her son William in the
faces of these boys. Though her portrayal in this scene reminds
readers of popular portrayals of Southern women during the war
as feminine stalwarts of their family and their cause, in that
order, Belle cannot be accurately described as a pioneer feminist
character, since Arnow had no use for convenient labels, ideological
or otherwise. As she is portrayed, Belle is simply a tireless
force of nature, guiding her family through a time of extreme
adversity led by her faith and inner courage.
Though by the time she was writing Belle Arnow may well
have dismissed "The Goat Who Was a Cow" as an apprentice
work, a certain harmony is struck when the two works are compared
side by side. The foremost similarity is the attention to character
nuance and Arnow's ability to situate characters in place. At
both ends of her career, Arnow avowedly avoided the temptation
to burden her work with excessive pathos or paint her characters
with the broad brush of "local color." Portraying Jezebel
in "The Goat Who Was a Cow" as a backwards, lazy hill
girl would likely have raised a chuckle from big-city readers,
but Arnow knew her region well enough to recognize its values
(not the least of which was pride) and imbue the character with
these same values. Likewise, Belle easily could have been a one-dimensional
Southern belle or a long-suffering wife/mother had Arnow ignored
both her research and her upbringing. "Place" in these
two works refers less to superficial trappings like dialect and
more to an ethos of self-reliance and forthrightness that Arnow
shared with her best fictional creations. In this way, then, it
seems preferable to read Belle outside of the canon of
Civil War historical fiction and instead cast Belle in the mold
of The Dollmaker's Gertie Nevels. Both characters personify
courage and resourcefulness, virtually define the phrase "strong
woman," and typify the best qualities of their region.
While one admires Arnow's own persistence in undertaking such
an ambitious project as Belle while in her seventies (at
a time when she was hounded by professors, students and journalists,
all claiming to have "rediscovered" The Dollmaker),
one also wishes she had called a truce with the editorial process
and found a sympathetic editor to polish this work into a fully
realized novel. Given this intervention, the work may have attained
more consistency and an adequate ending. Had this help been forthcoming,
southern Kentucky may well have had its own great Civil War novel.
But if this unfinished novel does not offer as bracing an artistic
jolt as the best of her work or stand undisputed as The Great
Lost Arnow Novel, it still deserves our attention. After fifty
years of writing about the region she considered home, the best
parts of Belle prove that Arnow still had many insights
on the Kentucky/Tennessee region to share. Besides, after all
Harriette Simpson Arnow did for this region's literature and people,
her work is owed nothing less. Though it may be convenient or
fashionable in this post-postmodern age to dismiss her work as
anachronistic, such a judgment minimizes or overlooks the themes
that keep her work beloved by many readers: family, faith, love
and place. If works that reflect these themes are anachronistic,
perhaps it is time we set the clock back.
Special thanks to Kate Black of the University of Kentucky Library
for her guidance and assistance in this project.
1. For example, Belle's husband is alternately called William
Barstow and Barstow Goodwood, another character vacillates between
Jean Paul Gaudais and Jean Paul Vauban. One character is amusingly
called "young Dr. Name" in lieu of a permanent moniker
2. An early draft of one of the schoolroom scenes was published
in the Spring 1980 issue of the journal Adena as "Interruptions
to School at Home" and remains the only fragment of Belle
3. One need only compare Arnow's copious historical notes with
a recent history of domestic life in the South like Catherine
Clinton's Tara Revisited (1995) to see that Arnow was well
ahead of her time in terms of her historical interests and attentions.
4. There is every possibility, though, that this name-in-progress
was meant to be ironic. Certainly the name "Belle" is
tinged with irony, since her practicality and responsible nature
clash with the stereotypical and one-dimensional coy mistresses
of the South.
5. Harriette Arnow, Belle "final" ts. (Harriette
Arnow Collection, University of Kentucky), 72-101.
Arnow, Harriette. Belle, ts. Harriette Arnow Collection.
University of Kentucky, Lexington.
---. The Dollmaker. New York: Macmillan, 1954.
---. Old Burnside. Lexington: U P of Kentucky, 1977.
Ballard, Sandra L. "Arnow's Last Novel: Harriette Simpson
Arnow's Unpublished Final Novel, Belle." Appalachian
Journal 25.1 (1997): 48-61.
Chung, Haeja K., ed. Harriette Simpson Arnow: Critical Essays
on Her Work. East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 1995.
Oates, Joyce Carol. New Heaven, New Earth: The Visionary Experience
in Literature. New York: Vanguard, 1974.
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